Review: Phèdre

Despite being exhausted by Albacon, I decided to head out to the Spectrum Monday night with my pals Ron and Peg because they were rebroadcasting Helen Mirren’s star turn in Ted Hughes’ translation of Racine’s Phèdre at the National Theatre in London. I was sighing from the get go: they had a new introduction from one of the execs at NT, who was speaking from somewhere up high, so you could see Waterloo Bridge and the Southbank Centre in the background across the Thames.

I miss London so much 😦

But the production at the Lyttleton (the medium size of the three stages) quickly made me forget about London as it thrust us back to ancient Greece and the illicit longings of the queen for her stepson, Hippolytus, played by the smoldering Dominic Cooper. It’s amazing to think how much fear and disgust an older woman’s sexuality can still arouse (hence the existence of the disparaging term “cougar”). In the play, it brings down a nation.

The absolutely gorgeous Ruth Negga plays Aricia, the true love of Hippolytus and the rival to power in the vacuum created by the supposed death of Theseus. The only other older woman, Oenone, played by the always amazing Margaret Tyzack, proves to be scheming and trouble-making even more so than her queen, condemning them all in this tragedy by her maneuverings. John Schrapnel as Théramène, not only has to act as wise adviser to Hippolytus, but also has to relate a tragic death that happens off-stage (as is normal for Greek drama). Schrapnel brought the audience to tears with his moving re-enactment with just words and gestures. The real power of theatre.

The only weak link was Stanley Townsend’s Theseus; perhaps he was having an off night, because at times he seemed to capture the magic that the others made look effortless, but all too often his movements and speech fell flat, losing that fragile connection to the imitation of life. A pity.

I love the NT and I am really grateful that the Spectrum 8 carries their broadcasts — really looking forward to the Hamlet with Rory Kinnear and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein.